Students who are taught by black or ethnic minority academics are less likely to rate their courses positively in the National Student Survey, according to a study.
An analysis of the 2014 results found that the ethnicity of lecturers was one of the most significant influencers on the overall satisfaction of UK undergraduates; an effect that researchers at the University of Reading attribute to “unconscious bias” on the part of respondents.
Henley Business School’s Adrian Bell and Chris Brooks, chair in the history of finance and professor of finance respectively, compared NSS results with staffing data held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and found that, for every 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of academic staff in a department who said that they were white, there was a 0.06 percentage point increase in the proportion of its students who said that they were satisfied.
Although this sounds like a small shift, the only factor that had a more significant effect when all other variables were held equal was the departmental response rate to the survey.
Many UK universities use NSS results to monitor the performance of academic departments but Professor Bell, head of Reading’s International Capital Market Association Centre, questioned whether they could “really trust” the data in light of these findings.
“We have to be aware that there is a bias in the NSS, and I don’t think we can do anything about that, but we need to be aware that, if we are building a diverse workforce, our results may go down as a result," he said.
“We have to accept that and be happy with that.”
The Reading study is the first of its kind in the UK but follows studies in the US that found that ethnic minority lecturers were rated far more harshly by students on the Rate My Professors website.
Out of 160 institutions included in the latest NSS, the overall satisfaction scores of all but 11 are bunched tightly between 92 per cent and 78 per cent, so the ethnic mix of staff could sway both departmental scores and institutional league table positions.
Most other recorded staff characteristics such as gender and age, and whether a lecturer holds a teaching qualification, did not have a statistically significant effect on student satisfaction.
The total number of staff in a department, their average length of service, and the proportion of them holding doctorates were found to have a beneficial impact.
The study also considered institution-wide effects, and found further evidence to suggest that the UK’s most prestigious universities underperform in the NSS.
If all other variables including research excellence framework performance and graduate prospects are equal, simply attending a university that is in the research-intensive Russell Group makes students between 1 per cent and 2.2 per cent less satisfied compared with other pre-92 universities.
Post-92 institutions underperformed by between 1.2 per cent and 1.9 per cent compared with older universities, suggesting that the “squeezed middle” – typically campus-based research universities – do best at satisfying students.